Side-Story contemporaneous to Generalplan Suden.
This chapter contains descriptions of violence, injury, death and corpses.
16th of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E.
Nocht Federation Republic of Tauta — Thurin City, Seaside
As the sun started to set, the drizzling showed no signs of a pause. Outside the Krawiec restaurant, Bercik heard a car horn, and he and Kirsten nearly jumped. A stately black automobile approached around the back of the restaurant, and drove up with its side doors to the two of them. Two men exited the vehicle; one left them without so much as a greeting, making his way into the restaurant. From the passenger side, a tall man stood up, looked them over, and spread his arms. He had big burly shoulders, a square jaw, and shiny, waxed brown hair combed back over his head, and a shark’s grin on his face.
“Not gonna hug me Bercik? You too good for hugs now?” Blazej said.
Bercik begrudgingly approached him. Blazej’s arms clamped around him like a vice, lifting him off the ground and squeezing him, laughing riotously as Bercik’s legs kicked helplessly in the air and he gasped for breath. This embrace squeezed the air out of him and he felt his back and arms crack under Blazej’s brute strength. When he let go, Bercik fell gasping on his back, holding his chest, and crawling fitfully away toward Kirsten, who knelt down to help him.
“You want one too kid? Come on, I think you can last more than Bercik, he’s a wimp.”
Kirsten shook his head vigorously, his hair golden whipping about as he did.
“You’re no fun. Bercik, this kid you got, he’s no fun. Where did you even scrounge him up?”
Blazej procured a cigarette and lit it in the middle of the rain. He took a long drag from it.
“You’re both getting wet, come on, get in the car.” He said, his Nochtish subtly accented.
Since coming up with this scheme Bercik knew that he couldn’t stay in Nocht. He had few options — aside from the Lachy mob all of his contacts were either too legit or too cowardly to help him. Blazej was a brute, and rough manner toward others was just his natural state. But lying on the ground heaving and gasping, Bercik felt that he could not actually be sure whether or not Blazej meant him harm or not. Getting in a mob car meant things.
“Where are we going, Blazej?” Bercik asked, standing up slowly from the ground.
“We’ll be driving down to Konig, further south, along the rural roads.” Blazej said. He smiled. “Then I’ll get you on a nice boat down to the islands. You can take a little vacation there, just you and your friend, a little house by the beach. You might not even want to come back, ha!”
Bercik cringed. Was that a threat or was he reading too much into Blazej’s glib demeanor?
Despite his trepidation Bercik knew the bitter and frustrating truth, that he could not run away at this point, or test his luck somewhere else in the fatherland. When he was chasing stories he always thought himself as a good reader of people, but that skill kept being tested lately and he was no longer sure whether he had passed a challenge. These were hurdles he would not know he cleared until he hit the ground or a pole did. Bercik nodded toward Kirsten that it was alright to get in the car. Kirsten sat in the back, and Bercik in the passenger side, and they shut the doors. It was warm and dry inside, and made Bercik conscious of how wet he had gotten in the rain. It also smelled terribly, of cigarettes, maybe even reefer. There was a brown stain on the backseat that made Kirsten flinch when he saw it.
“I was shaking up a guy for money he owed us before I got called for this. That guy’s got an angel looking out for him.” Blazej said, putting the car into gear. “Anyway, I much prefer driving you around, friend.” He nudged Bercik in the shoulder with his meaty fist.
“Then I guess my guardian angel has defected.” Bercik said. Blazej laughed.
“Well you got yourself a new one — though I’m more of a guardian devil.”
Blazej discarded his cigarette out the window, getting his arm wet in the process. After putting the car in gear he hardly gave it any time to warm up. He slammed the gas pedal and twisted the wheel with a violent cheer, and the car swung, tossing Kirsten on his side and slamming Bercik into the door. Blazej cut around the restaurant parking and hurtled down the road. Wheels screeching and the engine grinding drowned out their thoughts. Across the pier and the empty backroads Blazej drove like a charging beast, taking the corners at near to full speed.
“Izaak doesn’t know how to really drive!” He shouted. “THIS is how you drive!”
“Messiah defend us, we’re gonna die Bercik! He’s gonna kill us!” Kirsten cried.
“Blazej, drive like a human being!” Bercik shouted, shoving the driver’s shoulder.
“Oh but I am Bercik! I am!” Blazej laughed, ignoring both of their protests.
Ahead they saw the first connection onto a trafficked thoroughfare and both passengers gulped and averted their eyes. Once he was on the populated roads Blazej slowed down, but only by a fraction. He controlled his speed enough that he could scare the soul out of pedestrians trying to cross the street or standing at a corner as he hurtled past without outright killing them. He took particular pleasure in splashing water and blowing away the umbrellas of the suited businessmen coming and going from the banks and the stock markets in the city center. They shouted curses and slurs in his wake, but could do nothing more than that.
“Blazej, do you want to get stopped by the police? I’m in danger here goddamn it!” Bercik said.
“There’s just three motor police vehicles in Turin. Three! Can you believe it?” Blazej laughed.
Kirsten curled up in a corner of the back seat, and took a fetal position. Bercik held on to the door and tried center himself and avoid looking out to the streets. Owing to its exceptional speed the car carried them out of the city, down the southern roads overlooking the seaside, and rapidly they left behind the industrial grayness of Turin, and proceeded into the yellowing green of the southeastern countryside. Trees and shrubs were beginning to lose their summer luster, and the farms were planting their sweet potatoes, so the fields straddling the city limits looked barren of stalks and grasses. Here Blazej began to slow down to natural speeds. He looked out the windows with a grin, and kept a steadier hand on the wheel while navigating the gentle bumps on the dirt roads. Night was falling, and they could hear the rain again.
“It wouldn’t do to scream down these roads.” He said. “Wouldn’t be right.”
So there was something he respected after all. Or maybe it was just no fun for him without streets and roads full of people to torment. Bercik honestly didn’t know.
He had grown up around Blazej. When they were kids they would fight the other neighborhood kids, the ones who weren’t Lachy; they had their own little cliques and gangs even back then. Fighting and spying and stealing and smuggling were things they did even in that distorted mirror of adult life they lived as children. These things happened, but in miniature, and they served as preparation, like a kitten’s climbing and clawing made it a hunter when grown. But Bercik told himself that the results were far more evident in Blazej and Izaak than in him. He still saw it in them, and he tried to suppress what he saw of it in himself.
Or sometimes, as in his papers work, to redirect it somewhere else.
“So,” Blazej lifted his right hand from the steering wheel and gestured with it, driving with a leisurely hold from his left, “Bercik, what happened to you? Greis didn’t give me the whole picture, and I’d like to know what you did to anger the Schwartzkopf of all people.”
Bercik hesitated. Kirsten looked between the two of them; Bercik could see his eyes in the mirror.
“C’mon, you can talk to me.” Blazej said. “I’m not gonna be much help otherwise.”
“Been readin’ the newspapers lately?” Bercik said. “You should know, then.”
“Yeah, I saw your articles. Didn’t much care for them. After all, who cares what the government’s doing wrong. I ain’t doing any better and you ain’t either.”
“Well, I care. Enough that I managed to steal some top secret information from them.”
Bercik was lying, but he felt comfortable doing so where it concerned Blazej. It was unnecessary to be open about the exact mechanics of the operation. All that Blazej needed to know was that Bercik was formidable — that he had outwitted the government once already, that he had something mysterious and valuable on him, and more importantly, that he was skilled enough to get it. That another person largely did the work for him and then surprised him with the results was not a piece of information that Blazej needed to know. Kirsten kept quiet throughout, which was good. Hopefully he understood the pressing need here.
Blazej eyed him with a goofy grin. “I’m surprised at you Bercik. Stealing information and from the government? Going on the lam? I thought you were better than that.”
“Better than what?” Bercik said sharply. “Better than what, Blazej?”
“Stealing. Crime.” Blazej pointed the finger of his free hand and tapped Bercik shart in the collarbone. “You don’t want nothin’ to do with us, but you keep coming back in spirit, don’t you Bercik? I read your stories. All those scandals, all those interviews, the anonymous tips, the ‘leaks’ from the government. How did you get that? You don’t get that by being nice, right? You get it by knockin’ folks down, by breakin’ their windows, by knocking their teeth out until they spill the beans. You think I don’t know you? You think you changed?”
His finger was pressing hard enough now that it started to hurt, but Bercik offered no reaction.
Blazej’s voice started rising. Bercik looked him hard in the eyes, but it was contact he strained to maintain. “You ain’t no better than me, Bercik. Frankly, were I not the magnanimous soul that I am, I’d be more than a little pissed off at you. But I’m happy now that I know that you’ve spent the past year rolling in the same mud as I. You think you’re better than anybody.”
Ahead of them a little black car was slowing down, and Blazej lifted his finger from Bercik, put both hands on the wheel again, and stomped the pedal down. He violently cut around the little car on the tight road and speed up past it, leaving it far behind along the rural road.
“You think, you’re so good, that everyone will naturally just listen to you.” Blazej shouted. “You think you’re so smart, so above it all, that everyone’s gotta listen to you, like you got all the fuckin’ answers. That’s what I got out of your big splash on the front pages. In fact, I got a question for you genius man. Do you really know the Schwartzkopf are after you? Or is it just your imagination, that you’re so important that they gotta be at your heels?”
“He knows!” Kirsten shouted. His eyes looked a little wet. “Just shut up already!”
His sudden intrusion quieted the car for a minute. Blazej let go of the steering wheel, searched his pockets, and placed a cigarette between his lips. He periodically looked up out the windshield while lighting the stick and taking his first long drag from it. He raised his hand back to the wheel, using the other to manipulate the cigarette. He opened a window and blew out.
“That’s a relief, kid. Then at least I’m not wasting my time.” Blazej finally replied.
Kirsten made a little noise and curled his fists and crossed his arms. He sat back on the seat, tears in his eyes and red in the face, staring out the window with his teeth grit.
“So why are you here huh? Why’re you trailing this knucklehead around like a dog?”
“Because I wanted to.” Kirsten said through his teeth. The tears started to flow.
“Well, I’ve heard worse reasons.” Blazej replied. He raised the cigarette back to his mouth and made no further conversation. Bercik had nothing to say to him. He just stared out the window.
What good would it do to keep talking? It was better to let him blow smoke and say whatever he wanted and then leave it all at that. Otherwise the argument would just go on. And though he wanted to say something to Kirsten to encourage him, Bercik found himself feeling too guilty to do so. It was his fault that Kirsten was in this environment now. He was not a boy — Kirsten was an adult. He wasn’t even all that much younger than Bercik. The gap between them was just large enough to school someone at a college and no more. He had wanted to leave and so he left. But obviously, Bercik gave him the opportunity. Otherwise Kirsten might have remained a paperboy, day in and day out, returning home to play his instruments, his life a peaceful standstill. All of their future hardship was on Bercik. He had enabled it. He had coaxed perhaps the only friend he had left in the world to betray that same world with him. It was selfish. Could someone blame him for it? They could — he blamed himself certainly.
More and more as he thought about it, he thought maybe Blazej was right.
Night fell in earnest, pitch black from the thickening clouds overhead. Thurin’s light drizzling became as wild and overgrown as the new surroundings, rain striking the earth with growing vehemence. Along the dirt road they had passed the farms, and at their flanks there were soon only trees. Trees hung over the road from either side, tall and thick, a web of branches that gave a unique character to the growing dark. Wet branches hanging ahead of them glistened when illuminated by the car’s headlights. Eyes glinted from the trunks and the bushes as nocturnal animals traced their instinctive paths. Under the car the road grew muddy, and its passage kicked up sheets of water over the sides of the road.
They hit a bump in the road; water and mud splashed over the hood.
“Messiah’s sake!” Blazej cried out. “Bercik hit that lever there for me.”
Bercik reached across the instrument panel and started cranking a long handle back and forth. This motion was mirrored outside by wipers, sweeping the mud off the windshield. For each turn of the lever the wipers cycled to the left completely, and a second crank reset them to their natural position. Several exhausting cycles later, the windshield was serviceable again.
“Piece of junk looks nice and runs fast but it’s got no amenities.” Blazej grumbled.
He opened a window and threw out his third cigarette of the drive. Bercik was about to tell him not to light another one — the car was filling with smoke — but even Blazej seemed to be realizing as much. Instead, he offered one to Bercik, who declined immediately. Blazej threw the fresh cigarette out the window with the stub as well.
“You know that’s a disgusting habit right?” Kirsten said, speaking up again.
“Listen kid, I ain’t lookin’ for a lady, so it don’t matter how disgusting I am.” Blazej said.
Bercik shook his head. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re looking or for whom, if we fill up the car with smoke we’re all gonna be choking the entire drive. Can you control it, Blazej?”
“You know you smoke too you fuckin’ hypocrite. What, is he your girlfriend or something? You gotta look good in front of him? Jeez, you just saw me throw it out, quit nagging me.”
Kirsten crossed his arms turned his head again, looking furious once more.
They moved on a rural crossroad, itself heavily overgrown with trees and shrubbery, the signs nearly reclaimed by mother nature. There was a car perpendicular to them that had arrived at the intersection first, and Blazej sped past and cut it off gleefully, forcing it to break hard. He went on his way and it stopped at the intersection and blared its horn for a moment while they left it behind. Blazej then turned to look at Bercik, and at the briefcase he carried.
“Listen, if what you got is papers, I know someone who might take ’em.”
“What do you mean?” Bercik asked. “Take them? Like buy them?”
“What do you think I mean? I ain’t daft, yes, I mean transactions Bercik. I know people who I’m almost positive would take any government papers you’ve got off your hands.”
“Forgive me if I’m unconvinced.” Bercik replied. “How do you know this?”
“Listen.” Blazej raised his hand to him. “Look, five or six years ago, these little guys, these Svecthans, they started moving into the Higwe, doing business. I was out there for Greis, getting things stable again after one of our smugglers got caught out at sea like an idiot. These Svecthans started moving in and then started setting up a shop.”
“Really? You barely see Svechthans out of their home. They got no reason to leave.” Bercik said. It was not unheard of, but they were very few and far between. They had embassies, but most were little more than one fancy room rented out of an office building.
“Surprised me too! Everything goes in the islands, y’know, and they apparently had weapons to sell, drugs to push. Those Rashas Greis had were basically gifts from them. Rumor was, they got sick of all the happy hoorah times in communist country, and wanted to try for the big bucks in the freest market in the world. Complete bullshit. It’s the communists.”
“So you think it’s a front for something?” Bercik said, though he was still very unconvinced. He had great faith that Blazej could kill people, break things and steal stuff that was maybe worth selling, but Blazej the spy hunter was a dozen steps too far. Clearly he let his imagination run too wild out there in the tropics, maybe it was all the palm wine.
“I know it’s a front. They don’t care about the business. See, someone playing for keeps, who had the kind of firepower and funds these guys had, would have just offed me and Greis and taken everything over. For Messiah’s sake, I’ve bought bombs and rifles from these folk. Greis is good, but he’s not bomb-pushing good. We stick to drugs and meds ’cause that shit’s sustainable. These guys have got to be communists, and they’re probably the communists that’ve been causing trouble here and in Lubon. Those attacks, last year? Bet you it was their work.”
Some time ago, during the Federation Day celebrations, armed assailants had attacked the presidential motorcade. They had weapons and explosives. Grenades flew everywhere, setting cars ablaze, killing police. There were snipers, submachine gunners, automatic pistols slinging bullets everywhere. It was a warzone right in the middle of Junzien. Dozens had been killed, mostly police. President Lehner was nearly caught in it. Right away the communists had been blamed, and chiefly Ayvarta. Empress-in-Exile Trueday condemned her old country, and all suspects caught were either south-blooded in some way, or with sympathies toward defunct unions. Back then, Bercik had thought it must have been the Ayvartans. Who else had the power or motive to do so?
When he started writing his stories on the government, he changed his tune, and the way he figured it had to have been a false flag attack to drum up a casus belli now.
He never would have thought, however, that it might be a different communist group altogether who could be responsible. It intrigued him.
However he was still heavily skeptical. He would have to see it for himself.
“I’ll think about it Blazej. Right now there’s too much shit unknown.” He said.
“Just giving you a lead. You don’t look like you have a lot of direction right now.”
“I don’t, but let’s take things one at a time. Harbor, ocean, island, then business.”
“Whatever you say.” Blazej replied. He made as if to reach for a cigarette, but then he stopped himself, his hand shaking in mid-air in front of his coat. It seemed to take a lot of willpower to put his hand back on the wheel and overcome the urge to smoke.
“Thanks for your consideration.” Kirsten said sarcastically, still fuming in the backseat.
Blazej said nothing back at him this time. He did not even make an expression.
Bercik adjusted the rearview mirror to get a good look at Kirsten. He had to admit there was something comical and endearing about the childish and petty way he looked, with his arms crossed and his eyes turned to the window, like a kid who hadn’t gotten their way.
“You should get some rest, we’ll be there around sunset.” He said.
“I’ll be fine. I’ve stayed up all night practicing before.” Kirsten said.
“I know. I’ve heard it.” Bercik said, chuckling. “But take it easy, ok?”
Kirsten returned a subdued smile, while Blazej made a grunting noise.
Bercik readjusted the mirror again before Blazej took it as a chance to open his maw again. He pushed it up, until he could see the dark road behind them. But a powerful glare irritated his eyes — a car close behind them had turned on its high beam headlights.
“Where the fuck did you come from?” Blazej said, looking in his side mirror.
Accelerating suddenly, the car rammed them from behind. Bercik nearly hit the glove compartment, and Kirsten was pushed against Blazej’s seat. Blazej jerked close to the wheel, but kept himself in control and accelerated. Racing through the wood under the pouring rain, the cars were bumper to nose, their wheels hissing in the slick road.
The pursuer rammed them again, and accelerated even more, laboring to overtake them. The vehicle in pursuit was a newer model car, faster than Blazej’s by enough to gain on it. Centimeter by centimeter the nose of the pursuing car overtook their back wheel.
Blazej turned the crank to lower his window, letting in the rain. He drew his pistol, leaned out the window and opened fire. He shot off the pursuer’s side mirror and put several holes in the windshield before retreating. Both cars wobbled on the road, but neither relented.
At the sight and sound of the gun Bercik went nearly fetal for cover and Kirsten ducked in the space between the front and back seats. He feared the worst; but there was no retaliatory fire. Instead the enemy accelerated until their nose was right against the driver’s side rear door.
The pursuing car broke off from them to gain momentum before accelerating again and slamming viciously into their side, smashing off their fender on the left rear wheel.
This sheer brute force force pushed their car aside and their right wheels off the road, and a wave of mud and dirt and water rose at their flank. Blazej struggled for control. They took out a wooden road sign that crashed over their windshield and flew off their roof.
Blazej heaved on the wheel and maneuvered the car back into the flat, wet terrain of the road, while firing off his last few rounds, fruitlessly striking the surrounding wood.
“Kid, put your window down quick!” Blazej shouted, “I’m gonna brake slow when they’re on our side, you fill ’em with lead while they creep past! Hit the windows with the whole clip!”
Shaking and breathing heavily, his eyes wide with shock, Kirsten slowly drew out the gun Uncle Krawiec had given him, and reached out a trembling hand from the floor of the car, turning the crank and opening the window. Bercik drew his gun and looked out the back window at their assailant, but he could see nothing of the enemy behind the glass and the streaming rain.
There were amorphous shadows playing about the interior of the vehicle that could have been easily a trick of the night and rain. It was as if a wraith was in pursuit of them.
Again the enemy vehicle accelerated suddenly and broke off from them.
Blazej pumped on the brake pedal and ducked his head as best he could. Kirsten rose and opened fire blindly out the window; Bercik fired over Blazej’s shoulder. Over a dozen shots flew out their windows and crashed through the glass and doors of the pursuing car, shattering the windows and windshield and revealing humanoid figures for a brief second.
Their pursuers sped out of control, charging past and across the front of Blazej’s car, and crashing through a thicket on the side of the road.
Blazej stopped the car and hit the glove compartment. He tore out the shelf inside. Behind it there were stripper clips of zwitscherer ammunition, and he loaded one into his gun. “Let’s go Bercik. Kid, stay here and watch the road for more company. Shoot first, no questions.”
Kirsten nodded rapidly, shaking all over and with his eyes bloodshot and streaming with tears. Bercik reloaded, passed him a stripper clip, and dismounted without a word. He followed Blazej out into the rain following the skid marks off the side of the road. Past the line of bushes they found the car, a tree buried through the front of the vehicle. The passenger lay ten meters away, flung into the wood while the driver was gruesomely smashed against the wheel and dashboard. Blazej looked through the men’s coats, while Bercik opened the car’s rear door.
Between the front and backseats Bercik found a case, and in it, a loaded submachine gun.
“Everyone had a gun, and everyone had a badge, and whaddaya know,”
Blazej returned from inspecting the ejected passenger and the mutilated driver — he brandished in one hand a square, silver badge with an insignia, of an iron eagle holding the ringing bell of liberty. On the other hand he twirled a black fedora hat.
“Schwartzkopf.” He said, stretching his lips in a delighted, shark-like grin.
“We better hurry away then.” Bercik said. His heart was racing. They could have killed him easily, they had the means. All they had to do was light up the car with the submachine gun, instead of all that ramming. But that would have definitely killed him, and it seemed like they would have rather not. It seemed instead that perhaps they wanted him alive, so they could draw sound from him in a dark room. His imagining of their motives nearly made him vomit.
Blazej tossed the fedora over his shoulder. “Not my style at all.”
When they returned the found Kirsten sitting in the car with the the driver’s side passenger door open, aiming out the window and using it for cover.
“I saw this in a pulp once.” Kirsten said, his voice trembling. His eyes were open very wide and he had a tight, violently shaking grip on his pistol. Water trailed down his hair.
“It’s a good trick.” Blazej replied. He stood by the driver’s side door and fidgeted without a cigarette, as though about to light it, but under the rain that was certainly not possible. He threw it away. Bercik approached Kirsten and knelt down near him.
“You’re alright? Nothing happened out here?” Bercik asked.
“Nothing more than before.” Kirsten said. He was sopping wet.
Blazej took his place behind the wheel, and Bercik entered the car as well. He passed his wet jacket to Kirsten to try to warm him up, a kind gesture in his mind, though perhaps not fully thought out. Nonetheless Kirsten accepted it, smiled, and threw it on over his own. He settled on his side in the backseat and tried to sleep. They sped away from the scene.